Feed efficiency drives profitability

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As dairy farm profit margins tighten, it is critical to evaluate on-farm nutrition strategies to determine if any potential changes can improve the dairy’s cash flow. Feed efficiency is an important economic measure used to evaluate the amount of milk produced per unit of feed. Utilizing energy-corrected milk will give credit to the milk component contribution. 

Profitability must be considered alongside feed efficiency. High feed efficiency does not always equate to high profitability. One dairy might have higher milk production than another, but that doesn’t mean that it is more profitable. If that dairy is spending more money on feed to produce more milk, that will erode its profitability. Likewise, higher feed efficiency doesn’t guarantee higher milk production. A farm may maintain milk production at a consistent level, spend less on feed to do so, and thus be more profitable. Long story short, a high feed efficiency means little if a farm is not profitable because of it.

With that in mind, let’s explore some of the factors that can help improve feed efficiency.

Fresh cow performance

Transition cows must maintain adequate dry matter intake through the prefresh period and freshen with minimal metabolic issues. This will not only improve productivity throughout the lactation but also result in improved feed efficiency. Beware that fresh cow feed efficiency that is too high could indicate excessive fat mobilization in early lactation. This can have long-term negative consequences.

Forage quality, corn processing

Harvesting at the correct moisture and maturity is a critical component to making high-quality forages. Hybrid selection can be part of the solution to improved forage quality but needs to be balanced against input costs. High-quality forage allows the cow to maximize forage fiber digestibility, resulting in reduced grain fed, improved rumen health and reduced purchased feed costs. The result is greater feed efficiency driven by higher DMI and improved milk production.

Adequate kernel processing of corn silage and corn grain is also valuable to improving starch digestibility and feed efficiency. Having sufficient inventory carryover on wet corn sources, such as corn silage, will improve starch digestibility, resulting in less starch in the manure and improved efficiency.

Nutrition, grouping strategies

Feeding cows to maximize rumen microbial protein will result in maximum efficiency. To achieve the best microbial growth, the availability of carbohydrates and protein to the microbes should be matched using blends of rapidly and slowly degradable feeds. If too much protein is supplied without an available source of carbohydrates, the microbes will use the protein as a source of energy and waste the nitrogen in the protein. This may be indicative of higher milk urea nitrogen levels in the bulk tank. 

Cows will partition nutrients differently depending on their stage of lactation and gestation. The number of pens or groups is often dictated by facility and herd dynamics. If size permits, multiple lactating groups will allow for more precise targeting of nutrients and additives designed to improve feed efficiency. Early lactation cows will respond profitably to a higher-quality diet balanced for amino acids, higher levels of fat and fermentable carbohydrates. Late-lactation cows can maintain their production while controlling body condition on a more basic diet with feedstuffs such as fermentable fiber sources.

Bunk management, refusals

Maximizing DMI to increase milk production will improve feed efficiency. One pound of additional dry matter can lead to a 2-pound increase in milk production. In some cases, the percentage of refusals may be reduced below 3%. Feed distribution, push-up frequency and overall bunk management need to be excellent to make this happen.

Other management factors 

Cow comfort and heat abatement for both milk cows and dry cows will result in greater productivity and feed efficiency. Aggressive and effective reproduction strategies will result in more cows at peak lactation (a timepoint of improved efficiency). A strong heifer-rearing program to freshen first-lactation cows at 85% of mature body weight will also help maximize feed efficiency. Evaluate culling strategies to remove low-end producers with the poorest feed efficiency. Work with your nutrition consultant to review feed efficiency in your herd.

Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.

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